Music Theory

What is Form in Music?

By Hannah Kendall
Piano note key graphic with words binary, ternary, strophic, and rondo

Learn all about form in music, with examples to illustrate.

Form in music relates to the organization of notes into larger structures. This helps musicians recognize patterns in melodies, harmonies, or rhythm. It’s the way a composition is put together, giving rise to different sections of music that relate to one other. Understanding musical form also makes the music easier to learn and memorize! There are many different types of forms in music. In this article, you’ll learn about four of the most common forms in music: binary form, rondo form, strophic form, and ternary form. 

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Binary form in music

Binary form is organized into two different sections: the A section and B section, each with its own musical material.  They can be labeled simply as AB, but, because it was common in the 17th and 18th Centuries to repeat each section, they’re usually labelled as AABB. Classical musicians often improvised on each repeat:

This type of binary form is called simple binary.  Once we get to the B section, we do not return to any of the A section’s material.  Learn how to play a simple binary piece in Mr. Hoffman’s “Debka Hora” tutorial. In the A section, the left hand plays a melody with a distinct rhythm of eighth and sixteenth notes. The B section has a completely different melody with a contrasting rhythm.

Another example of binary form in music is “Spanish Dance” by Theodore Oesten.

The A section in “Spanish Dance” begins in the tonic (or home) key, and is composed of 8 repeating bars of music. Then, in the B section, which starts at 0:27, the melody begins in the dominant (or V) key. Notice how both the rhythm and the melody in the B section contrast with those in the A section. However, toward the end of the B section, we suddenly return to the A section’s melody.  This type of binary form is called rounded binary, which comes back around to the A section material at the end: 

Composing in binary form provides a helpful musical structure. Because each section repeats, you don’t have to write as much music! Mr. Hoffman’s video tutorial helps you compose your first song in binary form.

Strophic form in music

Because of its repetitive nature, strophic form is one of the most common song forms. Strophic form uses an Aaa structure, and is also known as verse form. Each “A” makes up a short verse and is repeated with the same melodic or harmonic structure. Notice, however, that each additional “a” is lowercase.  This is because, while the melody remains the same on the repeat, the words are different.  Different lyrics are set to the same music. 

Hoffman Academy students learn a strophic song as early as Unit 1! In “Chocolate,” students play the same musical material twice because of the repeat sign. 

Many genres use strophic form: classical, pop, folk, blues, and church music to name a few. Songwriters often use this form when they want to emphasize the lyrics rather than the musical material. The repetitive structure of strophic form allows the words to be the center of attention rather than the melody or chords.

Strophic form is commonly used in folk music to tell stories. Bob Dylan often used strophic form such as in Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright. Notice how Dylan uses the same melody in the first verse :09 as he does as the start of the second verse at :57.  

Strophic form can also be found in nursery rhymes!  The melody of the Wheels on the Bus is the same in each verse, but the words change to describe the different sounds heard on a bus. 


Ternary form in music

Ternary form is composed of three sections, structured as ABA. The “A” section is the opening section, and contrasts with the “B” middle section. The final return to “A” revisits the musical material from the opening “A” section. 

Learn how to play ternary form in Mr. Hoffman’s tutorial of “Wild Horses.”  Notice how the A section repeats two times before moving into the B section. The B section contrasts with the A section’s rhythm and melody. 

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Minor” is a longer composition in ternary form.

The A section can be heard until 1:25, where the composition abruptly changes into the B section with more movement. The B section contrasts with A by its use of triplets and speed. Then, it abruptly transitions back to the A section in 2:09. 

It is widely believed that ternary form grew out of rounded binary structures.  Take away the original repeat signs, and the two-part form of rounded binary becomes the threefold ternary form:

Rondo form in music 

Rondo form became popular during the Classical period (1750-1830). Music from this time emphasized structure, form, and themes to create a story with drama and contrast. There’s no better example of this than the Rondo form, structured as ABACADAEA…. The form is flexible and can be taken further, as long as the material comes back around to the A section. The A section can be thought of as the principal theme, or refrain. This theme alternates with different themes called episodes, labeled as the B, C, D, and E sections of the composition. In rondo form, the principle theme, or A section, is always in the tonic key. Alternating episodes are usually in different keys, creating further contrast and variety. 

Fur Elise by Beethoven is considered a five-part rondo, structured as ABACA. The famous melody heard in :05-:13 reappears in every return to the A section, such as in :43. 

Learn how to play “Fur Elise” in this tutorial by Mr. Hoffman.

The next time you listen to your favorite song, see if you can figure out the musical form! Does the song have an intro? A chorus? Does it repeat with the same musical material each time? Every song has some type of form and the more you listen to music, the more you’ll be able to determine different musical forms. We hope you feel inspired to compose music in new forms! 

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